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In Session: Eating Inedibles: Rethinking Foods in Asian STS
5: Eating One's Words: Ingesting Written Oaths in Premodern Japan
Friday, March 26, 2021
3:00pm – 4:30pm EDT
Barnard College, Columbia University, United States
In the late twelfth century, in a time of civil war, one thousand monastic warriors gathered at their temple before an image of their enshrined divinity and wrote out oaths to the god before they went into battle. The oaths were inscribed on the reverse side of printed paper talismans that embodied the temple’s deity. The monks then burned the oaths to ashes, mixed the ashes with water, and drank the mixture. From the thirteenth through the sixteenth century, village farmers composed similar oaths at their local temples and shrines, attesting before the gods the truth of their legal claims, and then burned and ingested them, before engaging in peasant uprisings or submitting petitions to the proprietors and managers of the agricultural estates on which they toiled. From the seventeenth through the nineteenth, prostitutes inscribed oaths of eternal love to their patrons, employing the same material objects, ritual techniques, and liturgical language, and burned and ingested them in the presence of their lovers. This presentation analyzes the conditions, materials, and practices of ingesting the ashes of sworn testimony to explore the performance and power of eating the inedible in pre-modern Japan. It examines the objects and methods which constructed the bonds of trust and obligation necessary for political, juridical, military, economic, and sexual relations. It challenges previous scholarship by viewing these relations as overlapping fields of practice, with a common corpus of documentary and ritual forms and shared networks of meaning and agency.